Good ideas endure. Business incubators were invented over 60 years ago and they continue to serve an increasing number of people and communities around the world. Today is the 102nd birthday of Joe Mancuso, the creator of the world’s first business incubator. His simple concept to promote community prosperity by helping entrepreneurs start and grow their diverse job-generating businesses in mission-managed, shared space in empty buildings may be needed now more than ever.
In today’s chaotic, pandemic-affected global world, where do small business owners go to get help to start, survive, and succeed in their hometown? Beyond the many explosive growth, high-tech or venture capital candidate programs that exist, the local business incubator may be their best bet. Seeing 2020 and 2021 new business applications in the multi-millions for the US alone, we need to broaden the network of economic development focused incubators to improve the distribution of entrepreneurial impact. Properly organized and focused centers expand the opportunity for more communities, in more places, to cost-effectively increase the diversity of potential for all kinds of people to realize their particular path to prosperity and happiness.
In 1959, in a small, rural city (pop. 18,000), the idea of filling a 1,000,000 SF empty, 19th century factory with anything resembling the thousands of jobs lost by its closure seemed ludicrous. Initially progress was elusive. Necessity spawned creative solutions, including:
Every business was important because every job was important. The first occupant was a 1,200 SF sign maker and two employees (funded by the facility pre-purchasing its large iconic sign from the startup). Eventually, bit by bit, the buildings filled and the job count exceeded 1,000.
The success revitalizing The Batavia Industrial Center led to requests from struggling property owners and job-starved municipalities of all sorts and sizes. Factory, commercial, and institutional buildings of various sizes and conditions were creatively recycled to house a mixture of small, medium, and local enterprises. Over the years, we have been honored to work with thousands of businesses that generate countless jobs by occupying these previously discarded properties. While there was a single incubator in 1959, today there are over 10,000. I believe our planet would benefit from many more economic development business incubators.
Once upon a time, a wise man, at an international conference, said “Every place that’s big enough to have a library should have a business incubator”. I didn’t appreciate his wisdom at the time. Decades later, experience continually reminds me how right he was. As our world, and our concept of things like “work” and “normal”, changes, the opportunities (and challenges) that business owners will encounter are increasing constantly. There is an ongoing flow of people seeking to start a variety of businesses for endless different reasons. We need them all, in order to find the ones that “stick” and grow (locally, globally, and everywhere in between). They are a key to our hope for jobs, progress, prosperity, and happiness.
The original Joe Mancuso term “business incubator” means a building that nurtures the startup and growth of enterprises that will employ local people. It is inclusive and organic (all sorts and sizes) with an economic development perspective. Local and regional businesses are particularly attractive since they are most likely to stay and make long term contributions to the host community. While many different interpretations of the label have arisen, the community-based, economic development one is where we come from. Our experience at Mancuso Group leads us to believe that:
Starting and operating an effective business incubator is not for the faint-of-heart. The early years are often filled with the stress of bootstrapping your way to cash flow breakeven while matching the program to your location’s unique realities. Project sponsors may strategically appear in forms that include municipal institutions, economic development organizations, churches, downsizing businesses with excess real estate, entrepreneurial co-operatives, and more. Establishing the appropriate balance of “mission managed magic” with financial margin can produce decades of economic progress for your area.
Over the years, I have seen first-hand the difference an incubator can make in someone’s survival and arc of progress. Affordable space, flexible terms, client services, and shared wisdom can be critical at any (and every) stage of an enterprise’s existence. We often hear from small business owners that simply “being part of a community” and “not being alone” in their entrepreneurial journey are some of the greatest values of these special places. Just knowing a community’s commitment to host an entrepreneurial assistance center, or witnessing the positive energy that emanates from the business efforts of our neighbors can encourage a person to pursue their dream.
Every place has people in need of the right job, as well as hope for enduring, vibrant hometown prosperity. Locally-led business incubators that attract, startup, and nurture the growth and success of these community businesses are a fundamental fuel for that desirable future. This place-based effort wants to be as realistically community-centric as practical. The concept of revitalizing underutilized buildings to house a business incubator to share local physical, financial, and human resources in order to foster hometown progress is a proven path. The idea endures because it’s a good one.
What can you do to create a community of opportunity in your hometown?